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Most 'tea party' followers are baby boomers reliving the '60s

Opinion

A poll debunks assumptions about the movement, showing that it's largely middle-class, college-educated, white and male.

February 24, 2010|By Jim Spencer and Curtis Ellis

Oceans of ink, terabytes of blog space and an eternity of television time have been devoted to the latest object of media fascination, the "tea party" movement. Now (finally!), a poll conducted by CNN gives us some hard data on the Tea Party Nation.

Neither "average Americans," as they like to portray themselves, nor trailer-park "Deliverance" throwbacks, as their lefty detractors would have us believe, tea partyers are more highly educated and wealthier than the rest of America. Nearly 75% are college educated, and two-thirds earn more than $50,000.

More likely to be white and male than the general population, tea partyers also skew toward middle age or older. That's the tell. Most came of age in the 1960s, an era distinguished by widespread disrespect for government. In their wonder years, they learned that politics was about protesting the Establishment and shouting down the Man. No wonder they're doing that now.

Look closely at the tea partyer and what you see is a famil- iar American genus: a solidly middle-class, college-educated boomer, endowed by his creator with possessions, opinions and certain inalienable rights, the most important of which is the right to make sure you hear what he has to say.

The tea party is a harbinger of midlife crisis, not political crisis. For men of a certain age, it offers a counterculture experience familiar from adolescence -- underground radio, esoteric tracts, consciousness-raising teach-ins and rallies replete with extroverted behavior to shock the squares -- all paid for with ample cash.

The partyers are essentially replaying the '60s protest paradigm. (We're aging boomers ourselves, so we know it when we see it.) They fancy themselves the vanguard of a revolution, when in fact they are typical self-absorbed, privileged children used to having their way -- now -- and uninhibited about complaining loudly when they don't. It's the same demographic Spiro Agnew called "an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals."

In a flashback of "turn on, tune in, drop out," the partyers reject mainstream culture, don the equivalent of Che T-shirts that say "Don't Tread on Me," and join sects with trippy names like Oath Keepers, Patriotic Resistance and Freedom Force. Instead of getting themselves "back to the garden," they get off the grid and, like the Bill Ayers crew, indulge in fantasies about armed rebellion against the establishment.

But the (often-overlooked) truth about the '60s is that the great accomplishments we associate with the era -- civil rights, putting a man on the moon -- were made not by boomers but by the generation born before World War II, which accepted shared sacrifice and saw it as an expression of their belief in duty, honor and country, not as socialism.

At Woodstock, Haight-Ashbury and the marches on Washington, the boomers socialized rather than sacrificed. They made great theater, and the media couldn't resist them. It still can't.

The tea partyers' pictures and sound bites are so good, no one cares that their math doesn't add up: Cut taxes and the deficit but keep your hands off my Medicare; do something about jobs but don't increase spending. Everyone understands it's about something deeper.

Ah, tea partyer, we know ye well. One of your signs says "Listen to ME!" That's all that's ever really mattered -- the original "me generation" grabbing the spotlight and the world's attention by whatever means necessary. The rest, whether beads, bell bottoms or birther slogans, is just a means to the same end.

Jim Spencer and Curtis Ellis are Democratic political consultants based in Boston and New York, respectively.

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